Killing time in Panama City

Having arrived in Panama City just over a week ago, we’ve had quite a bit of time in the city. It started off pretty lazily with time to relax in the luxurious Trump Hotel for Katrina’s birthday and it’s continued as we await our boat that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

In my last blog post I mentioned all I really knew of Panama as a country was the canal prior to my visit. Well the same applies for the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After 3 months in Central America, plus a couple of weeks in Cuba before that it came as a shock to the system as the bus rolled over the Bridge of the Americas and the city skyline came into view. No other city so far has had buildings like this, nor have we seen anywhere as much construction work as appears to be taking place here.

As part of our stay in the Trump (which is also the tallest building in Latin America – for now), we were lucky enough to be taken to the top floor and shown around the penthouse apartment. 5* Birthday Service and the view wasn’t too bad either!

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I’ll be honest, we didn’t do a whole heap in the Trump with the exception of lazing by their infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and eating one the best meals ever in their restaurant, Tejas. If you like fish and you’re in Panama City then treat yourself. There’s more about that in Katrina’s blog here.

Following our weekend of luxury, I admit to feeling like it was back to reality with a bump as we left the Trump and found a hostel in the old town, Casco Viejo. It’s a very pretty part of Panama City that in ways resembles bits of Havana. However, at the moment it’s … well … a bit of a building site.

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Despite the workers taking breaks to play football they’re pretty hard working as the noise goes on quite late and starts rather early. That said, you have to appreciate the effort to restoring buildings that are near to collapse and in time I’m sure it will be gracing the cover of the Sunday Times Travel section and so on.

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After all, how many other cities in the world can you see a Sunday afternoon baseball game on the beach?

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Throughout this trip, we’ve been rather laid back when it comes to planning ahead. This kind of showed when it came to looking for a boat to Colombia. Following a trip to the canal I was pretty convinced we’d be able to blag our voyage on a container ship. That turns out to have been a bit optimistic, though I still have hopes of doing so one day.

The way we finally decided on is by sail boat from the reputedly gorgeous San Blas islands for a few days followed by a 2 day open sea crossing to Colombia. The sea sickness pills have been purchased. By being slow to organise this, it left us with several days still in Panama City.

So what to do? Well I’ll be frank here, my clothes smell a bit and it’s really hot and humid. So we went to the mall. Blah blah blah – you’re not seeing the local culture etc. Well there’s lots of malls in this city so there.

One of the things that I liked the most (in my geeky business graduate way) was the targeted advertising many big brands had to their stores in the city. This one for Converse stood out to me as well as another for Hermes featuring an old Red Devil bus (sadly I didn’t have my camera for that one).

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Sadly a few months travelling has made me a cheapskate so half the items I actually bought in Panama City have come from Avenue Central and feel like they’ve fallen off the back of a passing container ship. For example, a $3 bright red digital watch. If it lasts 2 weeks I’ll be stunned.

The mall wasn’t a total waste however, we were able to bask in the gloriously over air conditioned cinema to see The Dictator. If you love crude comedy by Sasha Baron Cohen then I recommend you watch – a bargain here at just $2.50 each. Further, we got to go bowling at the world’s most slippery alley – well that’s my excuse anyway for not scoring over 104.

I’ll return to the more unique aspects of the city shall I? Well following a feeling of guilt from being lazy and gluttonous it seemed a little walk was in order. This took us to Parque Metropolitano on a swelteringly humid day. The park is more of a mini jungle in the middle of the city where there are deer, monkeys, sloths, 250 types of birds and so on. We saw a weird guinea pig type creature, a woodpecker, several butterflies and a grasshoppper (what can I say – I’m not David Attenborough).

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Despite our efforts are nature watching, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the city skyline. Though it seems from the picture I was more interested in the clouds.

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As if to enhance the point about Panama City’s skyline and the nearby Canal, we also went for a walk along the Causeway. A 3km long strip of land reclaimed from the ocean with material from digging out the canal. From here you are provided with another beautiful view of the skyscrapers as well as ships entering and exiting the canal.

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To cool off from wandering around Panama, street vendors have the perfect treat – Raspados. Similar to a snow cone, these cups of shaved ice are flavoured with fruit syrup then topped with condensed milk and/or honey. I’m addicted, so it’s fortunate they’re only 50 cents.

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Our final little exploration in Panama City wasn’t quite so successful. We thought we’d try something a little different a get a taxi up to a temple atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. Panama City is home the Latin American centre for a religion known as Baha’i (I hadn’t heard of it either).

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As you’ll see it’s a rather curious looking building shaped like an egg. Sadly this is as close as we got to the temple as we were told it was closed for renovation work. We did however get to watch a video that made us feel like we were back in Religious Education classes at school – we giggled inappropriately.

And that pretty much brings us to a close with Panama City, a beautiful city (albeit much of it still being built!) that I am sure in years to come will be an even bigger tourism and business destination.

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I say Panama, you say Canal!

Before coming to Panama, all I really associated with the entire country was the canal. Now after being here for a couple of weeks of which I’ve spent time on the beach, diving with sharks off an island in the same underwater mountain range as the Galapagos and staying in Latin America’s tallest building for Katrina’s birthday. I now know the country has a lot more to it!

As they say – “when in Rome, do as the Romans” – well in Panama I followed the many tourists to Miraflores Locks close to Panama City to see this amazing 98 year old feat of engineering in action. It was incredible.

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I’m a big kid when it comes to these things. I’m fascinated by big stuff whether it’s buildings – like the Trump Tower I’d earlier be escorted to the top of – or planes, trains and automobiles type things. I wish I could have been an engineer but sadly I’m not really blessed with the mathematical nor scientific skills so it’s the consultants life for me!

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The incredible view from the top of the Trump Tower. The canal has been the catalyst for such huge development.

The canal itself spams the isthmus of the American continent at its narrowest point and is vital to world shipping – without it much of the world would find Chinese manufactured goods more expensive to come by while boats would take the more dangerous and costly trip around Cape Horn or by railway across the States.

As we arrived at the Locks which host a slightly pricey museum ($8 for full entry and $5 to just watch the boats pass through the locks) a ship almost as large as the canal can take was midway through its passage. The canal is actually being expanded to accommodate larger and more lucrative ships – 80% of Panamanians (I think) were in favour, nice to see democracy at work!

The Miraflores locks are the last set of 3 locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the canal. The ship must descend by about 54ft to reach the bottom. I was in awe watching the ship process through. Locomotives are attached the the ship on either side, slowly keeping the vessel in line, something I hasn’t expected but cool to watch especially when they descend like a roller-coaster to meet the level of the ship.

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The spectacle of the boat passing through wasn’t just of interest to the tourists but it seemed much of the crew of the ship turned out to wave and watch as their office squeezed through tight walls of rock.

I’m equally fascinated by the whole organisation of the process. Ships often reserve their slot through the canal over a year in advance with the passage costing an average of $54k. A Disney cruise ship recently paid over $300k to pass through. From Panama City it is possible to see the ships queuing to make the passage. If you miss your slot, you’re I’m trouble. An empty tanker vessel once paid over $200k to skip a 90 ship (3-4 day) queue when typically the trip would have been 20 times less. FYI, the lowest fee paid for the trip through the canal was $0.36 in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, he swam.

C.15,000 ships per year use the canal and this is expected to triple following expansion works making the locks 60% wider and 40% longer. Even at the cost of $5.5bn it’s not a bad investment!

If you ever find yourself in Panama – I strongly recommend you see this.